Poetry and the Unconscious
By Eli Siegel
The unconscious is present in poetry, because it is present all the time. And when the unconscious is at its best, it is like poetry. In the unconscious, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, there are always two main procedures: one is to look upon the world as one’s offender, a means of humiliation, an interference, and the other is to love it without limit, be in relation to it always, go within it courageously, be affected by it, look upon it as a constant friend. These two tendencies represent the desire of the individual to make a secure and snug world in himself and get away from everything else, and the desire of the individual to welcome the great new and the great old and the great All That which is not oneself.
The two tendencies can also take the form of a desire to have everything comfortable, orderly, secure, and a desire to be in motion, be venturesome, be spacious.
A poet is a person who, at the time of writing a poem, can do what all people want to: put together the desire to be snug and orderly and the desire to be free, the desire to be a comfortable, isolated individual and the desire to take bold trips through the universe. That is in every poem.
We can see these things working in us, we can become aware of them, because if any person were asked, “Do you like things to be orderly?” that person would say yes, and if he were asked, “Do you like them to be free, to change, surprise you, have novelty, have a polish you didn’t look for?” he would say yes too. So these desires can be made conscious: to be secure and to be free, to be snug by one’s hearth and to be the seabird. The fullness of them, though, is unconscious. And the way they are put together is the very deepest thing in the unconscious. In other words, the deepest unconscious is that which causes poetry. It is also that which brings happiness. When a person is happy he is that much poetic.
The deepest unconscious would be that which could take the two main unconscious lines—one making for freedom and the other for snugness, one making for bold relations and the other for trim isolation—and have them work together. The deepest thing in the human unconscious is the desire to meet the conflict which is also part of the unconscious and say a poem can be made out of this everyday agony.
In showing that this is so, I am using a person who expresses in his life and, neatly, in his poems the two desires present in everyone. He could take either side of himself and, for the while in a poem, put together pain and pleasure, put together order and freedom. His life, as happens with other poets, did not catch up; in other words, his poetry was the most sensible part of his life. I am referring to a poet who is now at his greatest time of popularity. He has been called the poet of despair. He has been called the poet of the hell of London. He is James Thomson, 1834-1882. He did not go to Cambridge or Oxford; he had to get his education the hard way. And he was an army schoolmaster. He looked upon himself as a worker, and some of his most hilarious poems are about the joys of workers on a picnic. There is a fierceness in Thomson. One can see in his life the going from unrestrained hilarity to great despair, thorough despair.
The Self Is Like This
In a biography by J. Edward Meeker, The Life and Poetry of James Thomson, published in 1917 by Yale University Press, we find a quotation from Thomson:
There is the truth of winter and black night, there is the truth of summer and dazzling noonday; on the one side of the great medal are stamped the glory and the triumph of life, on the other side are stamped the glory and the triumph of death; but which is the obverse and which the reverse none of us surely knows.
In Aesthetic Realism lessons I have used the simile of the log of wood in water. Let us say that the log is divided into two parts. One part is called Nice Time; the other is called Feeling Like Hell. The log is having vicissitudes on the water, and at one time the uppermost part of the log, Nice Time, is above the water. Another time, what is above the water is Feeling Like Hell. The log, however, is never only what is above the water. It is always what is above the water and what is below. And sometimes, what is below the water comes to be above, and sometimes, as one might expect, what is above the water comes to be below. The self can be compared to this log of wood undergoing its philosophic career on the water: when the self seems to be riding high, it also has the Feeling Like Hell in it.
When we are riding high we tend to forget that the self which is riding high is not the whole self. If we are in the Feeling Like Hell time we tend to forget that that is not the whole self. We are always both, deeply. We cannot feel the pleasure when it seems the pain is present. We cannot feel the pain when it seems the pleasure is present. Most often we don’t want to. But the self is like the log. The self, though largely without conspicuous drama, is always in a swamp and always flying with the hilarity of an unusually lucky lark.
We have the two things, which, in essence, are not deeply called Misery/Happiness. What they are called is: Desire for the self to be alone and still / Desire for the self to explore otherness—or something like that.
In a poem, the deepest thing in the unconscious happens: the merging of the swamp and the hilarious lark, or felicitous seabird. That is why poetry, why aesthetics, is so important. It is difficult to merge the two aspects of ourselves in our conscious, everyday life; and there is a great deal of trouble.
The poetry of James Thomson is good poetry. It came in an honest way—both the cheerful and the miserable poetry—from his unconscious. The unconscious is the source that we don’t know—just as we don’t know what enables us to use our muscles: we can describe something and put it in a physiology textbook, but we don’t know what keeps us going, really.
Despair & Joy
James Thomson could be very, very cheerful, joyous. He is known best for that poem of despair “The City of Dreadful Night.” But he also wrote this, poem 18 in a series of small poems called “Sunday Up the River”:
The wine of Love is music,
And the feast of Love is song:
And when Love sits down to the banquet,
Love sits long:
Sits long and ariseth drunken,
But not with the feast and the wine;
He reeleth with his own heart,
That great rich Vine.
That is a joyous poem. There is unabashed hilarity to it.
Take another poem that has joyousness, poem 17:
Let my voice ring out and over the earth,
Through all the grief and strife,
With a golden joy in a silver mirth:
Thank God for Life!
Let my voice swell out through the great abyss
To the azure dome above,
With a chord of faith in the harp of bliss:
Thank God for Love!
Let my voice thrill out beneath and above,
The whole world through:
O my Love and Life, O my Life and Love,
Thank God for you!
It seems the Fates are being nice to Mr. James Thomson. He likes things; in fact, he’s chucking the Fates under the chin. He is riding high. But Thomson also could write in other ways. Take the beginning of “The City of Dreadful Night.” It is very musical. It puts together pain and pleasure, because we have pleasure reading about the misery.
The City is of Night; perchance of Death,
But certainly of Night; for never there
Can come the lucid morning’s fragrant breath
After the dewy dawning’s cold grey air;
The moon and stars may shine with scorn or pity;
The sun has never visited that city,
For it dissolveth in the daylight fair.
Dissolveth like a dream of night away;
Though present in distempered gloom of thought
And deadly weariness of heart all day.
But when a dream night after night is brought
Throughout a week, and such weeks few or many
Recur each year for several years, can any
Discern that dream from real life in aught?
In other words, Thomson, it seems, had recurrent nightmares, dreams where the things that are to be seen in “The City of Dreadful Night” were first seen.
He wrote this poem in 1870; it was published in 1874 in a magazine called the National Reformer. And it has been said he wrote it because he’d had unhappiness about love—because the young woman had died, and therefore he drank. But what we find is that earlier, at the time he was writing cheerful things, he also wrote this way. So it seems that though drink and the unhappiness in relation to love and the roamings of the streets of London and the insomnia could all have contributed, the source was present much earlier: the possibility of being joyous and caressing time, and also of being pained and saying, “Time, I do not want you—I want to get into nothingness and sleep and sleep and sleep and be no more James Thomson or anything.” Both of these are present in the unconscious of all people. And poetry merges the two; poetry comes from the unconscious drive to make the two things work together.
Stoniness—& Joyful Motion
To show that those two ways were present in Thomson pretty much from the beginning, I’ll read lines from an earlier poem. Children have a fight, as James Thomson did, between freedom and security, the desire to be in motion and the desire to have oneself by not moving at all. Children have described to me dreams about people changed to stone. And here we have Thomson, apparently in 1857, writing a poem called “The Doom of a City,” in four parts, and it is about people becoming stone. Meeker says:
In the second part, there is a description of this city, where all life has turned to stone—an allegory of the stony insensibility of the human heart....It is this section which most strongly suggests the City of Dreadful Night, except that this city is of senseless stone, while that is a ghastly night-vision of a living, moving metropolis.
Then Meeker quotes from “The Doom of a City”:
What found I?—Dead stone sentries stony-eyed,
Erect, steel-sworded, brass-defended all,
Guarding the sombrous gateway deep and wide
Hewn like a cavern through the mighty wall;
Stone statues all throughout the streets and squares,
Grouped as in social converse or alone;
Dim stony merchants holding forth rich wares
To catch the choice of purchasers of stone;
Statues fixed gazing on the flowing river
Over the bridge’s sculptured parapet;
Statues in boats, amidst its sway and quiver
Immovable as if in ice-waves set:—
The whole vast sea of life about me lay,
The passionate, heaving, restless, sounding life,
With all its tides and billows, foam and spray,
Arrested in full tumult of its strife
Frozen into a nightmare’s ghastly death,
Struck silent from its laughter and its moan;
The vigorous heart and brain and blood and breath
Stark, strangled, coffined in eternal stone.
When the professional people interested in finding the causes of multiple sclerosis do find them, I think those causes will have to do with why James Thomson wrote of people all being of stone. Why people harden, get sclerotic, has to do with why Thomson thought of people as being of stone.
Now, the other James Thomson is so definitely different that the contrast is notable. And the contrast should be talked about, since the two things in the contrast are a part, as I have said, of every unconscious. Take this joyous stanza, written about the same time as “The Doom of a City”:
“Oh, what are you waiting for here, young man?
What are you looking for over the bridge?”
A little straw hat with the streaming blue ribbons;
—And here it comes dancing over the bridge!
So Thomson is interested in the motion of a girl with a straw hat and ribbons, and he’s also interested in stone.